On the latest BloggingHeads.tv, I express some skepticism about Barak Obama that Noam Scheiber conveniently tried to debunk before Ross Douthat and I even recorded the segment (well, okay, Noam was arguing with someone else). My worry is this -- Obama has never really faced a major electoral battle. Sure, he seems like a charismatic guy and a good public speaker, but we don't really know anything about his performance as a candidate. I agree that "experience" can be easily overrated in presidential politics, but virtually nobody makes it to the kind of statewide office Obama now holds with such a paucity of electoral experience. Noam retorts:
It's not as though a group of party elders is just going to hand him the nomination and send him off to battle against John McCain or whomever with an affectionate pat on the behind. If Obama wins the Democratic nomination against the likes of Hillary, John Edwards, John Kerry, Evan Bayh, etc., he will by definition have been tested. If he can't take a hit, we'll know it by his failure to win the nomination.
For one thing, one shouldn't underrate the role of party elders. There are several second-term red or purple state governors any one of whom might make a good presidential nominee but none of whom seem to have a realistic shot precisely because party elders (the dread "Washington insiders") seem to lazy to offer any exposure to anyone who's not either a Senator or else the governor of Virginia. Second -- and perhaps more important -- Noam's argument could be applied to 2004-vintage John Kerry but as we saw there it's not really true. Weird shit happens, and a candidate who was eerily not-tested throughout a long and contentious primary campaign wound up shooting up the polls in Iowa and locking things up with shocking speed. And -- perhaps more to the point -- a primary campaign against other Democrats just isn't the same as facing off against the GOP.
There's perhaps no holder of comparable office who's had less experience tangling with the Republican Party than Barak Obama. This worries me. Now, on the other hand, it's true that he's a very appealing person in any number of other ways. What I'd like him to see is to find some way to get himself down in the muck -- put himself in a position where he's leading some kind of fight and the GOP feels compelled to try to take him down a notch or two. How well does he handle that? Maybe he'll handle it very well. But I'd like to know.